The following excerpt is from Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and out now with Fitzcarraldo Editions.
In her mid-sixties, Janina Duszejko, the novel’s narrator, lives alone in a remote cottage in the depths of the Polish countryside. She still teaches English part-time to the children in the nearest town, but the local community regards her as eccentric, if not mad, especially when she insists that the mysterious deaths of three local hunters were caused by animals taking revenge. At this point in the story a special mass is being said to consecrate a chapel to St. Hubert, the patron saint of hunting. Duszejko goes along to the mass.
The mass was still in progress. I took a seat quite near the exit, next to the third-year children, who were looking rather quaint, by the way. Most of them were dressed as Does, Stags, and Hares. They had masks made of cardboard and were growing impatient to perform in them. I realized the performance would take place straight after the mass. They obligingly made room for me. So there I sat among the children.
“What sort of show will it be?” I whispered to a girl from 3A with the lovely name Jagoda.
“How Saint Hubert met the deer in the forest,” she said. “I’m playing a hare.”
I smiled at her. But in fact I couldn’t understand the logic: Hubert, not yet a saint, is a ne’er-do-well and a wastrel. He adores hunting. He kills. And one day, during the hunt, he sees Christ on the cross, on the head of a Deer that he is trying to kill. He falls to his knees and is converted. He realizes how badly he has sinned until now. From then on he stops killing and becomes a saint.
How does someone like that become the patron saint of hunters? I was struck by the fundamental lack of logic in it all. If Hubert’s followers really wanted to emulate him, they would have to stop killing. But if the hunters have him as their patron, they’re making him the patron saint of the sin he used to commit, from which he broke free. Thus they’re making him the patron saint of sin. I had already opened my mouth and was drawing air into my lungs in order to share my doubts with Jagoda, but I realized this was not the time or place for a debate, especially as the priest was singing very loud and we couldn’t hear each other. So I simply set up a Hypothesis in my mind, that the point here was appropriation via antithesis.
The church was full, not so much because of the schoolchildren who had been herded in here, but a large number of quite unfamiliar men who were filling the front pews. Everything went green before my eyes because of their uniforms. There were yet more of them standing to the sides of the altar, holding drooping colored flags. Even Father Rustle was festive today, but his baggy, gray face looked ponderous. I couldn’t sink into my favorite state and abandon myself to contemplation as usual. I was anxious and worked up, and felt as if I were gradually slipping into a state where vibrations began to run around inside me.
Someone touched me gently on the arm and I looked around. It was Grześ, a boy from the senior class, with lovely, intelligent eyes. I taught him last year.
“Did you find your dogs?” he whispered.
Instantly I was reminded of how last autumn his class had helped me to put up notices on fences and at bus stops.
“No, Grześ, unfortunately not.”
“I’m very sorry, Mrs. Duszejko.”
Father Rustle’s voice broke the cold silence, with only a light scattering of foot-scraping and throat-clearing, and everyone shuddered, moments later to fall to their knees with a rumble that rolled to the very vault.
“O Lamb of God . . .” the words thundered overhead, and I heard a strange noise, a faint thudding sound from all directions—it was people beating their own chests as they prayed to the Lamb.
Then they started heading for the altar, moving out of the pews with their hands folded and their gaze lowered, repentant sinners, and soon there was a scrum in the aisle, but they all had more goodwill than usual, so without exchanging glances they made way for each other, looking deadly serious.
I couldn’t stop wondering what they had in their bellies. What they had eaten today and yesterday, whether they had already digested the ham, whether the Chickens, Rabbits, and Calves had already gone through their stomachs yet.
The green army in the front rows had also stood up and was moving down the pew to the altar. Father Rustle was now coming along the railing, accompanied by an altar boy, feeding them their next bit of meat, this time in symbolic form, but nevertheless meat, the body of a living Being.
It occurred to me that if there really was a Good God, he should appear now in his true shape, as a Sheep, Cow, or Stag, and thunder in a mighty tone, he should roar, and if he could not appear in person, he should send his vicars, his fiery archangels, to put an end to this terrible hypocrisy once and for all. But of course no one intervened. He never intervenes.
The shuffling of feet was getting quieter by the moment, and finally the cluster of people gradually went back to their pews. In silence, Father Rustle solemnly began to wash the vessels. It occurred to me that he could do with a small dishwasher, the kind that fits one set of tableware; he’d only have to press a button and there’d be more time for his sermon. He climbed into the pulpit, straightened his lacy sleeves—the image of them from a year ago in my dayroom came back to me again—and said:
“I am delighted that we can consecrate our chapel on this happy day. I am all the more pleased to be taking part in this valuable initiative as chaplain to the hunters.” Silence fell, as if everyone wanted to spend some time digesting in peace after the feast. The priest looked around the gathered assembly and continued:
“As you know, dear brothers and sisters, for some years I have been guardian of our brave hunters. As their chaplain I bless the hunting headquarters, organize meetings, administer the sacraments, and send off the deceased to the ‘eternal hunting grounds’; I also take care of matters relating to the ethics of hunting and do my best to provide the hunters with spiritual benefits.”
I began to fidget restlessly as the priest continued:
“Here in our church the beautiful chapel of Saint Hubert occupies one nave. There is already a holy figure on the altar, and soon the chapel will also be adorned by two stained-glass windows. One will show the stag with the radiant cross that, according to legend, Saint Hubert met while hunting. The other window will show the saint himself.”
The congregation turned their heads in the direction indicated by the priest.
“And the people who initiated this new chapel,” the priest went on, “are our brave hunters.”
All eyes now turned toward the front rows. Mine too—reluctantly. Father Rustle cleared his throat and was plainly getting ready for a very solemn speech.
“My dear brothers and sisters, hunters are the ambassadors and partners of the Lord God in the work of creation, in caring for game animals, in cooperation. Nature, among which man lives, needs help in order to flourish. Through their culls the hunters conduct the correct policy. They have built and regularly stock”—at this point he took a discreet peep at his notes—“forty-one feeding racks for roe deer, four storage feeders for red deer, twenty-five scatterers to feed pheasants, and one hundred and fifty salt-licks for deer . . .”
“And when the Animals come to feed they shoot at them,” I said aloud, and the heads of the people sitting nearest turned reprovingly in my direction. “It’s like inviting someone to dinner and murdering them,” I added.
The children were looking at me with eyes wide open, in terror. They were the same children whom I taught—class 3B.
Busy with his oration, Father Rustle was too far away to have heard me. He stood in the pulpit, tucked his hands into the lacy sleeves of his surplice, and raised his eyes to the church vault, where stars painted long ago were starting to peel.
“In the current hunting season alone they have prepared fifteen tons of concentrated feedstuff for the winter period . . .” he went on. “For many years our hunting association has been buying and releasing pheasants into the environment, for the purposes of paid shoots for tourists, which supplement the association’s budget. We cultivate the customs and traditions of hunting, with a selection process and oath-taking for new members,” he said, and there was a note of pride in his voice. “We conduct the two most important hunts of the year, on Saint Hubert’s day, today, and on Christmas Eve, according to tradition and with respect for the rules of hunting. But our chief desire is to experience the beauty of nature, to nurture the customs and traditions,” he ardently continued. “There are still a lot of poachers, who disregard the laws of nature and kill animals in a cruel way with no respect for hunting law. You observe that law. Nowadays, fortunately, the concept of hunting has changed. We are no longer seen as people who just want to shoot everything that moves, but as people who care about the beauty of nature; about order and harmony. In recent years our dear hunters have built their own hunting lodge, where they often meet to discuss the topics of culture, ethics, discipline, and safety while hunting, and other issues of interest to them . . .”
I snorted with laughter so loud that now half the church turned to look at me. I was almost choking. One of the children handed me a paper tissue. At the same time I could feel my legs starting to stiffen, and the nasty numbness coming on, which made me move my feet, then my calves—if I didn’t do it, in seconds a terrible force would blast through my muscles. I thought I was having an Attack, and it also occurred to me that it was a very good thing. Yes, quite, if you please, I’m having an Attack.
Now it seemed clear to me why those hunting towers, which do after all bear a strong resemblance to the watchtowers in concentration camps, are called “pulpits.” In a pulpit Man places himself above other Creatures and grants himself the right to their life and death. He becomes a tyrant and a usurper. The priest spoke with inspiration, almost elation:
“Make the land your subject. It was to you, the hunters, that God addressed these words, because God makes man his associate, to take part in the work of creation, and to be sure this work will be carried through to the finish. The hunters carry out their vocation of caring for the gift from God that is nature consciously, judiciously, and sagaciously. May your association thrive, and may it serve your fellow man and all of nature . . .”
I managed to get out of the row. On strangely stiff legs I walked almost right up to the pulpit.
“Hey, you, get down from there,” I said. “That’s enough.”
Silence fell, and with satisfaction I heard my voice echoing off the vault and naves, becoming strong; no wonder one could be carried away by one’s own oration here.
“I’m talking to you. Can’t you hear me? Get down!”
Rustle stared at me with his eyes wide open, terrified, his lips quivering, as if, taken by surprise, he were trying to find something suitable to say. But he couldn’t do it.
“Well, well,” he kept saying, not exactly helplessly, nor aggressively.
“Get down from that pulpit this instant! And get out of here!” I shouted.
Then I felt someone’s hand on my arm and saw that one of the men in uniform was standing behind me. I pulled away, but then a second one ran up and they both grabbed me firmly by the arms.
“Murderers,” I said.
The children were staring at me in horror. In their costumes they looked unreal, like a new half-human, half-animal race that was just about to be born. People began to murmur and fidget in their seats, whispering to each other indignantly, but in their eyes I could also see sympathy, and that enraged me even more.
“What are you gawking at?” I cried. “Have you fallen asleep? How can you listen to such nonsense without batting an eyelid? Have you lost your minds? Or your hearts? Have you still got hearts?”
I was no longer trying to break free. I let myself be calmly led out of the church, but right by the door I turned and shouted at all of them: “Get out of here. All of you! Right now!” I waved my arms. “Go away! Shoo! Have you been hypnotized? Have you lost your last dregs of compassion?”
“Please calm yourself. It’s cooler here,” said one of the men once we were outside. Trying to sound threatening, the other one added: “Or we’ll call the Police.”
“You’re right, you should call the Police. There’s an incitement to Crime going on here.”
They left me and closed the heavy door to stop me from coming back into the church. I guessed that Father Rustle was continuing his sermon. I sat down on a low wall and gradually came to. My Anger passed, and the cold wind cooled my burning face.
Anger always leaves a large void behind it, into which a flood of sorrow pours instantly, and keeps on flowing like a great river, without beginning or end. My tears came; once again their sources were replenished.
I watched two Magpies that were frolicking on the lawn outside the presbytery, as if trying to entertain me. As if saying, don’t be upset, time is on our side, the job must be done, there’s no alternative . . . Curiously they examined a shiny chewing-gum wrapper, then one of them picked it up in her beak and flew away. I followed her with my gaze. They must have had a nest on the presbytery roof. Magpies. Fire-raisers.
Olga Tokarczuk will be in conversation with Jennifer Croft and Askold Melnyczuk on September 25 at Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Massachusetts. On October 18, she will be appearing at Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions, London, 2018. Copyright © Olga Tokarczuk, 2009. Translation copyright © Antonia Lloyd-Jones, 2018. Reproduced by permission of Fitzcarraldo Editions.